Todd Sucherman Masterclass

Todd Sucherman

Todd Sucherman is one busy drummer. He grew up in a musical family and played his first professional gig at age six (that’s right, six!). He’d played thousands of gigs and recording sessions around Chicago before joining Styx a decade and a half ago following the passing of original drummer John Panozzo. He tours all over the world with Styx, yet somehow still found the time to make his multiple award—winning Methods And Mechanics instructional DVD and co-author the newly released companion instructional book to the DVD, along with numerous recording sessions and clinics, as well as filmed and released a follow-up instructional DVD, Methods And Mechanics II: Life On The Road. The Energizer Bunny would have a hard time keeping up with Sucherman.

I’ve known Todd for a couple of decades and recently had the honor and challenge of co-authoring the previously mentioned Methods And Mechanics companion book. We had a chance to talk drums and share some ideas that I thought would help shed light on what’s made him such an incredible drummer.

DRUM!: Talk about what you have been up to lately?
Todd Sucherman: Since the first Methods And Mechanics DVD, the most notable projects included another Taylor Mills record called “Under The Surface,” and some of that material is going to be in the Methods And Mechanics II DVD. I also did the Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin record. Brian Wilson was commissioned by the Gershwin Estate to not only reinterpret the music but was also given two pieces of unfinished Gershwin music to complete. We recorded and released Styx Regeneration Volume 1 and Volume 2, which are re-recordings of all the classic hits and I also do 120 shows a year with Styx on the road. I spent the better part of the last year writing and getting material together for Methods And Mechanics II, which was filmed last December, and then spent the last five months when I wasn’t on the road editing it. I also have the Methods And Mechanics book coming out in November. I’d had a lot of requests for a companion book to the first Methods And Mechanics DVD and I thought, “Why not?” Certainly I couldn’t transcribe it, and that’s where you entered the picture for this project, and it blossomed from there. The mammoth amount of hours that you put in to transcribe that stuff goes hand in hand with the mammoth amount of hours it took for me to play that stuff.

There’s a nice marriage between the book and DVD with most of the playing examples and some lessons written out for the eye to see, and it comes with a CD so you can hear the exact performances from the DVD. And there will be a few play-along tracks included for some of the tracks. It’s a nice serendipitous confluence of events for all these projects to occur roughly in the same quarter.

DRUM!: How do you fit all these things into one year?
T.S.: When I’m on the road we’re basically playing a similar set with minor changes depending on length of show or if we’re sharing a bill with anyone, so I look for creative outlets to occupy my time in between doing that. So it isn’t really that difficult to find the time, the hard part is being able to turn my mind off and just relax sometimes.

DRUM!: What kind of stuff are you working on when and if you practice?
T.S.: It’s funny you ask that because I haven’t had the opportunity to work on much because I’ve been on the road solidly for the past couple of months. I did as much practicing as I could to get myself in fighting shape for the filming of the DVD in December. So pretty much all the ideas I played in there were things I tried to tighten up. I’m always trying to improve, obviously. I guess lately what I’ve been doing beyond the obvious maintenance practice of warming up backstage is I’ve been trying to mess with different figures in phrases of five with flams and seamlessly going back and forth with hand ideas like that.

Marco Soccoli gave me a couple DVD’s of pretty much all the Buddy Rich Tonight Show performances so I’ve been watching a lot of Buddy and putting on a couple Buddy records and then just try to feel the drive that he had. No one drove a big band like he did. There were obviously a lot of great big band drummers through the course of our history, but when you listen to him it’s just a different thing. I mean, technique aside – I’m just talking about his feel and the way he swung and hit the kicks. He was in a league of his own. So while warming up I’ve been putting on a couple of late ’60s Buddy Rich swing tracks and just trying to swing along. I’m not necessarily attempting to learn everything that he played, I’m just trying to get into that spirit and feel the energy wave that he had that was otherworldly.

DRUM!: You employ the Moeller technique for most of your accents, resulting in lots of ghost notes following the accents. I think DRUM!’s readers would be interested in how you learned that.
T.S.: Yeah, it’s to the point now where I don’t think about it. Those strokes are very natural. I’ve always loved ghost notes and was interested in what they can do to a groove even if the ghost notes get lost in a live performance or recording. The groove would have a different feel had I chosen not to play them. That being said, some grooves are perfect without them. But I’ve always been interested in seeing where you can fill up the sixteenth-notes in between accents. Sometimes it’s more than two notes. Sometimes it can be three, four, or five in a row. So I’ve worked on getting that into the natural fluidity of my playing and my thinking. It’s interesting that you’re referring to them as the Moeller strokes because I never thought of it that way. Although I guess it’s easy to employ that downward whip motion for the main accent notes.

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DRUM!: I meant it more generally, but you’re right. Technically, the Moeller stroke is that old-school marching technique that involves a lot of arm motion. Lift the elbow, flip the wrist back, etc. What you do is probably more of a reduced Moeller, or a velocity stroke. How do you think of it?
T.S.: Well, I think it’s a bastardized Moeller, in a way. I first became aware of that when I got to hang out with Steve Smith in ’91 or ’92. We sat with a snare drum in between us for a good half hour. That was where I became familiar with the down-tap-up repeated triplet figure and that hand motion, and then maybe a year or two later I took a lesson with Jim Chapin and he had a slightly different slant on that. So I think it was an amalgamation between my two experiences with Steve and Jim that formed what I do.

I wouldn’t say that it’s the classic Moeller but it’s just something that works for me to play what I want to play. That’s the idea. You want to get your technique to the point where you can play what you hear and ultimately the technique is a means to an end. It’s kind of like speaking. You think of what you want to say; you’re thinking of words not diagramming sentences in your head. You get the technique to a point that you don’t have to think about it you just call upon it and some things end up feeling very, very natural and seep into your playing and become part of who you are.

DRUM!: You use a couple of hand-pattern ostinatos in your playing and throughout the Methods And Mechanics DVD with various bass drum patterns that work for backbeat-type grooves. The song “Together” uses one of them. (Fig. 1) They really seem to propel your grooves a lot. How’d you develop that?

Fig 1

T.S.: Any system that you can work with ostinatos or bass drum patterns in Western backbeat music is useful because you’re just familiarizing yourself with all the possibilities in common time and common note rates, and that can only be a good thing. You can call upon ideas and sort of paint as you go along if you have developed the ability to do that, and have gone through different permutations until these things sound and feel normal. But that only comes with sitting there and doing it.

The Gary Chaffee Fatback exercises* – going through all those different ostinatos with the 200 possible bass drum combinations that you can play in 4/4 music. There it is. There’s everything in 4/4 time with a backbeat on 2 and 4. There are all your possibilities, at least within a quarter- to sixteenth-note rate. So any kind of consistent work through a system like that can only yield beneficial results.

Fig 2 Fig 3

*For more in-depth information check out Gary Chaffee’s Patterns: Time Functioning, Volume 3.

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DRUM!: You play some absolutely mind-blowing polyrhythmic fills throughout the Methods And Mechanics DVD. Lots of drummers are justifiably confused by polyrhythms and how to develop those abilities. There are several polyrhythmic fills in Jerry Goodman’s song “Tears Of Joy” (Fig. 4) that immediately come to mind. For two fills you precisely play 24 or 30 notes over 13/8 evenly and smoothly. I’ve been wondering how you do that. The only way I can figure is to have each fill completely worked out and locked down so you can do them easily, then fit them into the space allowed without thinking of the 13 pulses beneath it. Or do you do it some other way? Are you thinking in one-bar chunks or somehow dividing up that space to find places to anchor it?
T.S.: It basically comes just from doing it. For the 30-over-13 lick, I wasn’t thinking of it as 30 notes over 13. I was just feeling the beginning of the riff’s snare drum accents, of which I believe there are six of them, and over two bars that figure would land on the 1. I think I would have tripped myself up if I was trying to cram 30 notes into something. It’s something that just sort of happened playing a figure at that note rate. I was just hearing each snare drum hit over two bars, sort of a 6-over-26. [laughs] I was thinking about the rhythmic resolution point; that was the target. I think I just stumble upon a lick at that note rate with that phrase and thought “Oh, that worked, remember that one.” [laughs] And that was really it.

Fig 4

Intro To 4:3 Polyrhythm

Here’s a very brief lesson on a common polyrhythmic feel. Start in the time signature of 3/4 and play sixteenth-note single strokes (R L R L) while counting 1 e & ah 2 e & ah 3 e & ah. Now accent every third note starting on 1 (1 ah & e). When you’re comfortable with this, play the bass drum on the quarter-notes (counts 1, 2, and 3). From this point, try to just play the accented notes over the bass drum pattern. This creates a 4:3 polyrhythm feel. From this point you can further subdivide the accents into four, five, or more notes, creating different divisions of notes over the quarter-notes and creating a variety of polyrhythms.

Fig 5

Steve Smith’s great fill in the Journey song “Separate Ways” is a well-known example of this idea in a pop context. First, learn this common linear triplet fill, starting on each quarter-note. Once you’re very comfortable with this try starting each triplet on counts 1 ah & e, just like we did a moment ago, then end it with a flam on count 4. (Fig. 6) VoilĂ , you’ve just learned one of the classic drum fills of all time.

Fig 6

DRUM!: Since you mentioned remembering it, do you jot down ideas when you come across new things, record them, or just recall them the next time you sit behind the kit?
T.S.: I used to be a lot better about recording my practice sessions than I have been of late. There were a couple of ideas that I played in preparation for the DVD so I pulled out the iPhone and thought, “Oh, this is a nice bit.” I rarely write anything out and occasionally will record something on my iPhone even though I have a whole studio there at my disposal. It’s just a lot easier to just turn around, hit the button the iPhone, rather than power everything up, because by that time I would have forgotten what I was playing. [laughs]”

DRUM!: If you had to recommend a couple of things for any drummer to work on to improve their own playing, what would they be?
T.S.: Basically, the difference between something sounding amateur or professional is groove, dynamics, and phrasing. Sometimes it’s just basic evenness and the way the drums are hit. Obviously, it goes deeper than that but let’s just work within those confines.

Young drummers should record themselves and videotape themselves and see what’s going on. Look at how they’re playing and then look at how some of their favorite drummers are playing and hopefully they’re looking at some drummers with good technique. That’s what I did. I videotaped myself and then I’d watch Steve Smith and Vinnie Colaiuta play and go, “Why don’t I look like that?” Not that I wanted to copy everything because we’re different human beings and physically the sizes of arms and whatnot are different, but in just so far as their technique and fluidity – those are the things that I was interested in to try to take my technique to a high level. Like I said in the first DVD, I still see a lot of kids barbarically bashing on the hi-hat, like gorillas up top. It’s really top heavy and they really should be thinking from the bottom up. Balancing the bass drum and snare drum, getting a good sound between those two instruments, then working in the hi-hat, letting that be the icing on the cake. If you get a good sound out of the drums, then right there you’re on your way to sounding professional rather than amateur.

All the technique things and the slickness or the hipness of grooves comes later. If you hear just 1 and 3 on the kick drum, 2 and 4 on the snare drum, and eighth-notes on the hi-hat, you can tell a real player from a kid in the garage just from that. By recording yourself and playing very simple things gradually working up to more difficult grooves, figures and patterns, listen and make sure you’re going from idea to idea smoothly and that the time feels good. Make sure you’re not losing the pulse when you play a fill. Make sure your fills have a shape and a purpose and are propelling the music even if you’re just playing by yourself. That’s the difference between playing musically on a kit and just making noise. Those are two vastly different things.

It’s important to know song forms in the first place, because if you want to play with other musicians, you’re going to be playing music. So you have to know song forms whether it’s standards or basic rock song format. I do a little improv solo on Methods And Mechanics II where I talk about melodic song-form practicing where it’s more stretching out on the drums, coming up with rhythmic motifs and melody and playing in a song form that way, which is entirely different from playing a beat and trying to shape a piece of music in a basic groove sort of way. Ultimately, if you want to be drummer who plays music, that comes first. If you want to be a drummer who just plays drums, you’ve got a long row to hoe.